I have loved Bloomsbury for as long as I’ve known it, and from 1972 to ’78 I worked at the former Dillon’s University Bookshop there.

In those days the bookshop’s address was 1 Malet Street. It also looked onto Torrington Place, as part of a parade of shops with a café, a newsagent’s and a chemist’s. Gradually it spread across the entire block, now occupied by Waterstone’s at 82 Gower Street.

The business was founded by Una J. Dillon (1903-1993), who had set up a small bookshop on Store Street in 1936. In 1956 the University of London invited her to open a bookshop on its behalf. She retired in 1967 but remained on the board until 1977 (I didn’t know that at the time).

I worked in various departments, including a mail order service for schools of English. Cassette tapes were a great novelty then, and I still had to keep carting piles of large spool tapes to the post room. Much later, as it happens, I became a teacher of English as a Foreign Language myself.

bf-buildingI was, frankly, far from mature while at Dillon’s and certainly didn’t appreciate the great beauty of the building (1908), which is listed. Its architect, Charles Fitzroy Doll, also designed the dining room on the Titanic and the (more durable) Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury. The phrase ‘dolled up’ is said to allude to his architectural style, but the bookshop’s façade isn’t showy. Even though the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called it ‘restless’ and ‘flamboyant’, it’s very tastefully neo-Gothic, incorporating turrets, gargoyles, and elegant carvings around the windows.

Along the street from the bookshop is the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I walked past that thousands of times without even noticing the gilded bronze sculptures on its façade, representing carriers of disease such as rats, bugs, fleas and mosquitos. Training as a Camden Tour Guide has truly opened my eyes, not least to Bloomsbury.


Paul Guest will be leading a walk about ‘Soldiers, Students and Residents’ as part of the Festival on 22 and 23 October.

More information on the event here